How and why a Texas school district became SpaceX’s Starlink lab

  • SpaceX has rocketed nearly 900 internet-beaming Starlink satellites into orbit in hopes of beginning the internet service sometime in 2021.
  • To test Starlink, SpaceX kicked off a public beta in October and is recruiting users.
  • As part of the beta, SpaceX agreed to serve up to 135 families in western Texas through an agreement with the Ector County Independent School District.
  • Scott Muri, the district’s superintendent, says he pursued the deal because dozens of student families have “zero internet” and no conventional way to get it.
  • Business Insider obtained an agreement between SpaceX and ECISD for Starlink service, which includes pricing, terms of service, and more.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When it rolled out a big test of its Starlink satellite-internet project this summer, SpaceX decided to make Ector County Independent School District, a rural education system in western Texas, a vital experiment.

Superintendent Scott Muri had been on the job less than a year when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Suddenly, all 34,000 students were out of school.

“We sent them off on spring break, and they never returned because of COVID-19,” Muri told Business Insider.

Like most school districts across America, Ector County pulled together a remote-learning program with a hodgepodge of Zoom meetings and classroom apps. The city of Odessa, the county seat that’s home to 120,000 people, was well-equipped to handle the surge in data use: It had two internet providers capable of delivering high-speed broadband to families across the city.

But just beyond city limits, Muri said, a dearth of modern internet infrastructure began to hurt his district’s students. Families were paying nearly twice as much for less reliable and far slower service, if they could sign up for any at all.

“We have families that have zero internet access. None,” Muri said. “And we have we have kids that … can only do audio in a meeting because they don’t have enough bandwidth to do the video. We had kids that would would pop in and out of classes, so they were there for five minutes and gone for 10.”

Muri says the district pursued an “all the options” approach to get students online, seeking out mobile hotspots and traditional satellite providers. But each had its weakness: Not every home was close enough to a cell tower, for example, and existing satellite internet services have low throughput with high lag — a problem for interactive video and audio. 

odessa texas pump jack permian basin shale oil gas well ector county texas tx 2019 07 30T000000Z_1760747123_RC14347DC970_RTRMADP_3_USA SHALE INDEPENDENTS.JPG

A pump jack operates in the Permian Basin oil and natural gas production area near Odessa, Texas, in February 2019.


Nick Oxford/Reuters



But months before the pandemic, Muri had engaged leaders of Permian Strategic Partnership, a coalition of 20 fossil fuel companies in the gas- and oil- rich region, about expanding broadband infrastructure.

“We recognized, as a school district, that the internet and broadband access is critical for the long-term academic success of our children,” Muri said. “Beyond that, it’s also important for our business community, the industries that we have in our area, and just the whole economy of our community.”

After reading about Starlink in the news, a member company of partnership approached SpaceX about connecting its remote oil and gas well equipment via satellite. Muri soon got word. “They helped us make a connection to SpaceX,” Muri said, “and one thing led to another.”

By early summer, Muri’s school district was dealmaking with SpaceX. The company couldn’t offer public service until 2021, Muri said — hundreds more satellites needed to be put into orbit — but the company asked the district if it would enroll dozens of families in Starlink’s forthcoming beta-test program.

“We said, ‘Absolutely,'” Muri said.

A high-tech — and experimental — option to close a digital divide

spacex starlink satellite falcon 9 rocket launch october 6 2020 flickr 50428050591_36defbe958_o

SpaceX’s Starlink-12 mission lifts off during a sunrise over Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on October 6, 2020.


Ben Cooper/SpaceX



On October 1, SpaceX and the district finalized a Starlink work order and service agreement, a copy of which Business Insider obtained (we’ve embedded it below).

SpaceX will provide up to 45 families Starlink services for a one-year term, to start sometime in January or February, according to the document. Muri said the county can add 90 more families once SpaceX is satisfied the first group is having a “successful experience.”

The company also stipulated that only families without internet connection should receive Starlink, Muri said. “They didn’t want to have a family cut off from their current form of internet access, get the SpaceX service, and then we discover there are problems.”

The agreement’s terms of service are relatively plain, save for a controversial clause about recognizing Mars as a “free planet” where “no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities.” (Muri said he found the part “fascinating” though “it didn’t dissuade” him from signing.)

SpaceX will charge $85 per month per family. Initially, Muri said, the company wanted to charge around $290,000 for service to up to 135 families, which would have yielded a monthly payment of roughly $180. On top of that, SpaceX also planned to charge each account $100 for mounting hardware and $1,000 for a Starlink kit. The most important and expensive component in the kit is a user terminal, or satellite dish, that Musk has described as a “UFO on a stick” that communicates with Starlink satellites flying overhead.

space starlink satellite internet coverage animation signal cones_slow.2019 10 18 14_13_35

An animation of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation providing internet coverage to the Americas.


SpaceX



However, a recent contract amendment cut the kit cost to $499 to be more in line with prices SpaceX picked for its public beta.

“As they looked at the market, they’ve adjusted their pricing. And so our agreement with them was adjusted as well,” Muri said. (Telecom experts believe SpaceX spends far more to build user terminals than it charges for them, a subsidy that could help it build market share but hurt it in the long run.)

After the Ector County school district publicized the agreement in late October, many news stories wrongly claimed SpaceX would provide the service for free. Muri said that misconception likely arose because the district plans to provide the service for free to families. Several charitable donations, including $50,000 from the nonprofit Chiefs for Change and additional funding from the Permian Strategic Partnership, will help cover the project’s cost.

‘These things don’t always work out’

Muri said Starlink will be no silver bullet for Ector County, so the district has raised more money to cover families’ cable internet bills and put up Wi-Fi towers in underserved areas. Muri expects the district to receive enough funding to fully cover the Starlink bill, which should exceed $200,000 for 135 families, plus other initiatives to help student families.

While high-speed internet “is mission-critical” for public education, Muri said, especially during a pandemic, he noted Starlink is in a test phase and that “these things don’t always work out.”

“If it does, it’s the right kind of investment to make. If it doesn’t, then we’ll pursue other avenues. But at the end of the day, we have children that have no options,” he said. “If Starlink improves the level of connectivity even a hair, that is better than what some of our children have today.”

Muri said he expected a lot of media attention after publicly announcing the Starlink agreement, but hasn’t minded.

“My hope is that it has brought attention to the need of our children, and not only in our own county, but across the country,” he said, noting a “digital divide” that benefits well-connected families and disadvantages those with little to no internet access.

He added: “The longer this pandemic rages on, the more our children are going to suffer academically.”

Read ECISD’s Starlink agreement with SpaceX:

 

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